Why are Kerala farmers abandoning rubber in favour of rambutan, and dragon fruit?
Rubber and other conventional cash crops are gradually giving way to exotic fruits like rambutan and dragon fruit on tracts of farmland in Kerala. The demand for these crops is only increasing, resulting in guaranteed profits for farmers.
Safiya Sulaiman, 63, plucks a crimson orb with a thorny rind from the thick, green leaves of a 15-foot-tall tree. As she cut around its equator, a snow-white part that is widely sought after for its delicacy emerged.
‘This fruit is creating quite a stir,’ she added, savoring the rambutan, which has recently incorporated itself into Keralite eating patterns.
Every harvest season on her field is a vindication of a commitment to ‘grow out of the ordinary’ for this lady farmer from Erumely, a village in Kottayam’s eastern highlands. Sulaiman, her late husband, planned to remove the natural rubber overhang on their one-acre property exactly a decade ago.
Third year of planting
‘Rubber was no longer an appealing crop, and we were looking for something that could be a blend of novelty and business. We decided on rambutan, which replaced the rubber trees across the land,’ she explained. Initially, there was some skepticism. Concerns turned to awe when the trees began to bear fruit within the third year of planting. Her farm’s fruits have made their way all the way to Europe. They currently pay her ₹3 lakh each year.
According to Agriculture Department authorities, Ms. Sulaiman is one of a rising number of farmers painstakingly raising a variety of exotic fruits in Kerala’s tropical highlands. ‘Such fruits are appearing in farms across the midlands and foothills,’ said Geetha Varghese, Principal Agriculture Officer, Kottayam.
People willing to pay
The transition to these fruits allows farmers to ignore natural rubber variations because their crops are far more valuable. People are willing to pay a premium for such fruits.
According to State Horticulture Mission estimates, the area under commercial production of exotic fruits remained a fraction of the 3.10 lakh hectares of land under fruit agriculture. In 2021, the area dedicated to exotic fruit farming was only 994 hectares.
2.5 million mangosteen saplings
However, stakeholder organizations say that these figures only tell part of the story because the majority of such plants end up on homesteads rather than commercial farms. They cite the sales figures of Home Grown Biotech, one of the major plant-producing nurseries in south India, which has sold about 2.5 lakh mangosteen saplings in the last year alone.
Jose Jacob, the nursery’s managing director, also attested to the increasing expansion of exotic fruits throughout Kerala.
According to him, this growth is principally motivated by the desire for higher returns in light of natural rubber’s fluctuating fortunes. ‘The exquisite sugar-acid balance of Kerala’s tropical soil makes it one of the best places to cultivate exotic fruits. The presence of four unique seasons across the state also maintains its fruit basket full for nine months of the year,’ he said.
Aside from mangosteen and rambutan, exotic fruits agro-climatically suited for cultivation in Kerala include durian, passion fruit, dragon fruit, litchi, and avocado. Moving up the value chain, large-scale fruit cultivation opens up the possibility of food processing units, in addition to export opportunities.
However, the government must intervene to secure the integration of the supply and export chains.
‘Instead of individual arrangements based on seasonal supply, there should be government-facilitated export-oriented entities. In the long run, it will help to stem the decline in earnings from the plantation sector and create more jobs for rural youngsters,’ said Mr. Jacob.
Recognizing that the period of rubber luxury has passed, the planter community has now advocated a loosening of the restrictions controlling Kerala’s plantation sector, which accounts for one-fifth of the total cultivable area in the state. Attempts have been made to persuade the state administration of the importance of restoring some semblance of coherence to certain essential provisions of the Kerala Land Reforms Act, 1963, and the Kerala Land Reforms (Amendment) Act, 1969.
Crops in high demand
‘The plantations are bleeding, but the issue of diversification is even more complicated, given the stringent rules that have limited plantation development to designated cash commodities such as rubber, tea, coffee, cardamom, and cocoa. This has slowed the expansion of Kerala’s plantation sector,’ said V.C. Sebastian, National Secretary General of the Indian Farmer’s Movement (INFAM).
In his perspective, the traditional classification of plantations, which limits them to a few crops, is no longer relevant in the face of agricultural rationalization. ‘Blending crops, tourists, and even animals, a process known colloquially as agro-forestry, may increase earnings from the same piece of land,’ he noted.
Diversification of plantations to include fruit production, among other things, may not be a panacea for addressing the vagaries of climate change, the market, or the biodiversity crisis. However, producers remain optimistic about its ability to command a big premium and turn around their fortunes.